Sunday 25 April 2010


I've gone to Nicaragua. Thanks to the volcanic ash cloud, my trip was delayed by 5 days, but I'm finally on my way. Hooray!

Back in two weeks.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Koya, Soho

I don't know a whole lot about Japanese food, but what I do know is that I love udon noodles. Thick, white and slurpy, they are top of my list when choosing noodle dishes, with the Chinese ho fun, a wide flat rice noodle coming in at close second.

It was with great confusion and indecision when I was faced with four different serving options of udon noodles at the recently opened Koya, on Frith Street in Soho. Specialising in udon noodles, there is a choice of either hot noodles in hot broth, cold noodles in hot broth, cold noodles with cold dipping sauce, or cold noodles with a cold pouring sauce. Confusing, right? We decided to go for one of each of three (as there were three of us) to get a wide spectrum.

But firstly, I was excited to see onsen tamago on the menu. I first read about this here and instantly wanted them; traditionally cooked in hot springs just below 67 degrees C, the white was soft and silky, the egg yolk slightly set with liquid innards. Served in a small bowl with cool dashi broth, we were unsure as to how to tackle it. With a little stab of the chopstick I slurped down half, much like a shot, and savoured it slipping down the throat; soothing, with a salty, bonito-spiked cool broth following.

Next up, pork belly braised in cider served with a dab of Japanese mustard was tender, sheaths of fat moistening the flesh. The accompanying braised shallot fell apart in swathes of sweetness and was a joy to eat. I only wished we had a bit more.

For the main event, I opted for prawn and vegetable tempura with hot broth. Plates of noodles arrived at the table and we were somewhat baffled as to how to go to it. Thankfully our friendly waitress showed us the ropes - I was to dump my noodles in the broth and either put the tempura on top, or to dip them in as I went along. The first mouthful of noodle shovelled in was a revelation. So often the udon noodles I eat, from vacuum packets, are slippery, slimy and flacid. These were gloriously chewy and elastic, seasoned by the broth. Across the table, noodles in a pork and miso broth drew envious looks and we all agreed we would be going for this next time.

Again, I was excited when I saw natto on the menu as a topping, as I'd never tried it before. Natto is fermented soybeans, and they are famous for their challenging texture. A dining companion groaned and made faces when I insisted on ordering it, but I was convinced I would like them. I was wrong. They are VERY sticky. As I tentatively chopsticked them into my mouth, strands of what can only be described as slime hung from my eating implements and down my chin. I rather enjoyed the texture of them, but the taste? Eurgh, the taste. Sour, bitter, and slightly fruity. I scooped in another mouthful before I admitted defeat and I picked out all the rogue soybeans floating in my broth that I had so hastily lobbed in. Later, we were told by the serving staff that only the Japanese really like them. On Twitter, I was asked if they had been seasoned with mustard, spring onion and soy sauce; they had not. Apparently this is where we went so very wrong. The lingering whiff of them stayed with us for a while. A late night distressed tweet of natto burps made me shudder.

We paid £67 between three of us, including tip and 4 beers. Very reasonable indeed, and I can already feel the noodle craving creeping up on me. But not the natto. Oh no.

UPDATE: Upon a second visit, I am pleased to report it was just as good as the first. Pork and miso broth was meaty, umami goodness and onsen tamago, ordered as a topping instead of a small plate comes in the shell, ready to be cracked into and enrich the soup base. Hooray.


49 Frith Street
London W1D 4SG

Koya on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Bella Vista Cucina Italiana, Blackheath

London can feel like a big place. Living in New Cross, I often find myself crossing the river to meet up with those North dwellers who have The Fear of the South East. This is a recognisable syndrome; confusion, sometimes panic at being told there is no tube station and the overland must be sought. Other symptoms include getting lost, becoming bewildered and crying at London Bridge and all of its 16 platforms.

It was with some happiness that I was invited to a dinner being organised for South Easters, at Bella Vista Cucina Italiana in the rather lovely Blackheath; a mere 10 minutes from my flat. I'd met all the people round the table bar a couple, and we're firm friends; we stick together in our little corner of the capital.

Huge fat buttery green olives tided us over while we sipped on lovely pear-scented glasses of Prosecco. A special set menu of 6 smaller dishes all of which are on the menu was devised for our table with the wines, all Italian, matched by Ben Smith of Enotria.

To start, 'calamari ripeni with sauteed monk's beard'. A new vegetable to me, it was much like a slightly stringier spinach. The tube was stuffed with the tentacles of the squid mixed with basil, spincah and pine nuts. A smooth, rich tomato sauce complemented it nicely.

Next up, a plateful of bresaola with goats cheese, beetroot and rocket. The beef, properly from the bull was thinly sliced and flavoursome. A swig of the wine, a fruity, cherry-scented Dolcetto Nirane Ascheri '09 brought out the beefy, bloody flavour well. A drizzle of olive oil over the leaves was gorgeously fruity, though the goats cheese slightly overwhelmed the flavour of the beef and was more suited to being smeared over the toasted slice of bread.

Grilled mackerel with anchovy, caper and fennel was the best wine and food match of the evening. The fish, stuffed with the anchovy and caper was beautifully fresh and crisp-skinned. Accompanying it, the salsa di Pomodoro was studded with pearl barley which managed to have a moreish creamy quality to it. A crisp '08 Pinot Bianco Classici from Colterenzio was citrussy without being acidic and had a slight flavour of honey to it, mellowing the aniseed tang of the fennel that was cooked until it was juicy, lurking beneath. We all loved this dish, and even converted someone who was previously dubious about the fish. I wanted more.

A pasta dish of Paccheri Amatriciana was a lesson in simplicity. Big fat slappy pasta tubes, cooked to al dente sat in a tomato sauce studded with bacon and basil, topped with a shaving of Pecorino. Being the pasta fiend I am, I finished mine off in no time and helped another diner out with theirs. It's reassuring to see a deft hand with pasta at an Italian restaurant.

Our final savoury course of the night, grilled lamb rump with marjoram sauce, looked mouth-watering. The slices of lamb were pink and tender, but the sauce had a bitter edge which was mildly tempered by the semi-dried tomatoes, though not enough so. The meat sat upon a smooth cannellini bean mash which wasn't to my taste; slightly floury in texture, I'd have preferred polenta or potato (I still ate it all). The Parusso Barolo '05 had a hint of vanilla and tobacco about it and while it was full-bodied, the lamb stood up well to it.

Full to the point of dangerous shirt-button-straining territory, I prayed for a light dessert. The date and mascarpone tart with Frangelico and hazelnut sauce was a delight, and one of the highlights - not something I often say about desserts. The filling was mousse-like in consistency, the pastry crumbly and buttery. It all had just the right amount of sweetness so as to not be cloying or sickly. Crunchy hazelnuts scattered around the plate were scooped up and shovelled in. The '06 Morsi di Luce I felt clashed ever so slightly with it, as it was a touch too sweet for my tastes and I enjoyed it more after I'd finished the dish.

Head chef Alex Tyndall, formerly of Michelin-starred Chapter One (a favourite of my family), came out to have a chat with us. Clearly passionate about finding the best ingredients, he's been cooking at Bella Vista only for a few months and it's obvious that with him at the helm, this place will do well. Quite frankly, it's a relief; Greenwich and Blackheath, both such lovely places to live near, used to have absolutely zip-zero decent eateries. With places like this and reportedly The Old Brewery (of which I haven't visited), things are looking up.

We paid up happily and waddled out to our cabs - shared, of course, since we're all locals. The next morning I woke up thinking about that pasta. I could've eaten it for breakfast.

3/5 Montpelier Vale
London SE3 0TA

Tel: 020 8318 1143

Bella Vista on Urbanspoon

Monday 19 April 2010

Crunchy Pappardelle with Purple Sprouting Broccoli

There's nothing quite like picking your own vegetables, straight from the ground and eating it all up the next day. I spent last Sunday at Riverford Organic Farm down in Devon; a beautiful part of the country. We jiggled around in the back of a Land Rover up and down country lanes, the previous evening's enjoyment of Somerset's cider making us turning a peculiar shade of green. We yanked up rosy stalks of rhubarb, inhaled the scents of wild garlic in woodland and picked off tender stems of purple sprouting broccoli.

Armed with our spoils, I was delighted to discover a recipe for crunchy pappardelle in the Guardian's weekend supplement, taken from Ottolenghi's forthcoming cookbook, Plenty. Pasta is so often the perfect vehicle for decent, flavoursome ingredients with minimal faffing around. I've also been meaning to garnish a pasta dish with breadcrumbs ever since I saw it here, so it really was the ideal recipe for the occasion.

I made a few changes, mainly substituting the garlic for wild garlic which is in season now and had a beautifully mild, but definitely garlicky flavour. Creamy and crunchy, it was a dish to herald springtime.

Crunchy Pappardelle with Purple Sprouting Broccoli

Serves one (generously)

125gr pappardelle
125gr purple sprouting broccoli
A large handful of wild garlic
125ml double cream
A splash of white wine
6 chestnut mushrooms
2 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
Zest of half a lemon
A stalk of rosemary
4 heaped tbsp panko breadcrumbs
A sprinkle of chilli flakes
Salt and black pepper

Set a large pot of salted water on to boil and throw the pasta in. Heat a little oil in a non stick pan and fry the mushrooms, quartered, until lightly coloured. Add the white wine, chilli flakes and double cream and simmer until reduced by about half.

Meanwhile, wash the broccoli and blanch in boiling water for a couple of minutes and drain.

In a non-stick frying pan, toast the breadcrumbs with the lemon zest and parsley until the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Chop the wild garlic roughly.

When the pasta is just short of al dente, drain, reserving a few tablespoons of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the cream mixture with the wild garlic and throw the broccoli back in. Cook on a low heat stirring slowly, adding the reserved cooking water tablespoon at a time if it's looking a little dry. Do this for a few minutes for the pasta to finish cooking. To serve, pile on a plate, season well and garnish with the breadcrumbs.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Food and Politics

You'll never get used to seeing yourself on camera. It is entirely nerve-wracking. Nevertheless, I'll share with you. I was invited to do a filming for The Observer Conversation. It's right on topic; food and politics. It is rather unfortunate that the below screen grab looks like I'm about to burst into tears. But no matter.

So, Sarah Brown has planted her own vegetable patch at No. 10. How do we feel about this? Can politicians influence the way we eat?

We did a filming with Jay Rayner about this very subject. Are we cynics that think this is a token gesture for the green vote? Do we think politicians can influence the way we eat? Have a click on the above video to hear me, Helen, Tom and Dan harping on about it. What do you think?

Thursday 15 April 2010

Drakes on the Pond, Surrey

Despite being asked sternly "you won't cancel this time, will you?" when I made my reservation, I had high hopes for Drakes on the Pond, located in the hilariously-named Abinger Hammer. My dad's birthday lunch, rescheduled due to illness, took place here on Good Friday.

The car park was littered with expensive cars, but when we entered the restaurant we were greeted by a quiet hush. A sunny room, there were only two other tables occupied by aging couples. Shuffling around uncomfortably for a minute or two, we were greeted by the lone waitress and shown to our table before she disappeared completely. After a wait, she eventually emerged to offer us drinks. Dressed casually, she gave the impression that she owned or was a parner of the place. I had to ask her to take our coats. At this point I was afraid to even cough, the restaurant was so quiet and it made for an awkward dining experience, devoid of any ambience aside from what we created ourselves.

We were only offered a set menu, each course with three options. My starter was chicken liver parfait; a huge block of silky smooth liver accompanied by heady truffle-scented brioche and a plum chutney to lighten things up a bit. It was a mammoth portion, and as delicious as it was, there was not enough chutney or bread. Or perhaps there was too much parfait. It was left half finished.

My main, a fillet of cod on creamed potatoes and leeks with a scallop roe sauce was well cooked. The potatoes and leeks had obviously been made with swathes of butter while the sauce was only vaguely reminiscient of its description. It was a very rich dish, and it could have done with an acidic element to balance it out. Across the table, lamb fillet was disappointingly over-cooked.

We decided against dessert and had coffees instead. Petit fours were "cocoa-dusted lumps of butter" and rather unpalatable.

To add to the lacking ambience and general comfort of the room, service was pretty shocking. Don't, for example, leave our bottle of wine on a shelf by the side when there's perfectly enough room on the table and then leave our glasses empty - I am not a fan of empty glasses. No water was offered, and the waitress seemed to be more interested in sitting down and having a natter with one of the other couples, obviously friends of hers, than doing her job properly. I am in complete bafflement as to why they still have a Michelin star. The food may have been worth the £20 for two courses, but based on this experience, don't bother.

Drakes on the Pond

Dorking Road
Abinger Hammer,
Dorking RH5 6SA

Tel: 01306 731 174

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Chilled Tofu with Chilli & Spring Onion

I'm yet to convince everyone about the joys of tofu, but I'm giving it a good go. Rather than just a vegetarian meat substitute, I think the Chinese and the Japanese recipes are always the best, letting the natural flavour of the tofu shine through rather than marinating the hell out of it and masquerading it as something it's not.

There are so many different types of tofu; tofu puffs, deep fried till golden brown, airy and crunchy soak up and release sauces it is braised in like a sponge. Tofu skin, often wrapped around a juicy morsel of meat can be delicate, giving way under the teeth to the nugget inside. Soft, silken wobbly cubes, such as in this recipe, slip around the mouth like jelly. Tofu desserts, like here, can be refreshing or warming, depending on the time of year and the temperature at which they are served. As such, I just don't believe it when people say they don't like it. It's like not liking potatoes. It's just not possible.

I was reminded of this dish at The Empress of Sichuan, recently opened in Chinatown. Of a few dishes, this one impressed me the most; the spicy dressing was fiery and yet cooled by the chilled cubes of tofu. Sichuan pepper gave it a trademark mouth numbing and especially eaten with hot rice, the temperature contrasts were pleasing. Sesame is the dominant flavour here, with coriander and spring onion giving some freshness, and heat from chillis and ginger. Served on the side with some ferocious chicken with chillis and some stir-fried okra, it was, again, my favourite of the three. Quick to make and easily done in advance, it's a dish that will be gracing my table often.

Chilled Tofu with Chilli & Spring Onion

Serves 2 as a side

1 block of silken soft tofu
3 slices of ginger
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
2 red birds eye chillis
50ml dashi stock (or vegetable)
A few sprigs of coriander
1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
2 spring onions
1/2 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns

Very carefully, cut the tofu in cube and simmer in a pan of water for 2 - 3 minutes. Drain and leave in the fridge to cool. Toast the peppercorns lightly in a pan and grind to a fine powder in a pestle and mortar. In a bowl, combine the vinegar with the soy sauce, sesame oil and stock. Chop the ginger finely. Deseed the chillis and slice thinly, add to the soy mixture. Add the ginger and stir to combine. Slice the spring onions on the diagonal and chop up the coriander. To serve, pile the tofu cubes up carefully and drizzle with the dressing, garnishing with the spring onion and coriander. Sprinkle with the peppercorn powder and serve chilled with a meaty dish and some vegetables.

Monday 12 April 2010

Sweetcorn Cakes

Sweetcorn in all its formats pleases me. Creamed in a can, it forms the basis of a good chicken and sweetcorn soup, Chinese style. Ears of corn wrapped in their husks and grilled on the barbeque to be later slathered with salt, chilli, butter and lime juice is one of the joys of summer. You should never leave a barbeque unless you have bits of yellow stuck in your teeth.

I've made sweetcorn fritters a couple of time but each recipe I've followed has been too heavy on the batter and too light on the kernels, resulting in a bland, claggy heap of a meal. This recipe though, flavoured with coriander and lime is light, flavoursome and packed with juicy popping nuggets of corn. I had it with an avocado salsa which worked well enough, though I think a tomato salsa would be more suited. But that will have to wait until summer.

Leftovers, topped with a freshly poached egg, made a perfect light breakfast.

Sweetcorn Cakes

Serves 2

50gr self raising flour
210gr sweetcorn (I used frozen)
1 egg
4 spring onions
1 lime
2 tbsp coriander
1 birds eye chilli
1/2 tsp salt
Plenty of black pepper
2 tbsp cooking oil

In a large bowl, whisk the egg and add the sweetcorn. Mix the flour in well. Chop the chilli, spring onions and coriander finely and add to the mix. Lastly, add the salt and pepper and squeeze the juice of the lime in.

Heat some oil in a pan and add the mixture in patties, a couple of tablespoons at a time, smoothing to make them round. Fry on a medium heat for 2 - 3 minutes per side until they're lightly browned.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Panda Panda, Deptford

Like most of my corner of South East London, Deptford Broadway isn't much to look at. Derelict, boarded up shops litter the roads, dodgy old pubs reeking of old men and sweat line street corners. New build housing, all metal and glass gleam incongruously beside railway bridges, but a splash of colour lights up the drab grey, orange letters shining through the fug. Panda Panda, billed as an Oriental sandwich cafe opened here last month. A friend told me of it's existence and I was invited to dinner here. A mere 20 minute walk from my flat, I was excited at the prospect of bubble teas and Hong Kong-style desserts.

The welcoming and friendly owner, Van, is a young Vietnamese man who had taken advantage of a banking redundancy to open Panda Panda. When we arrived, five teenagers lounged around on cafe-style chairs. They asked if they could watch the football and it emerged they had ordered a staggering twenty nine bánh mì to take away. The kitchen staff worked in a frenzy behind the counter to slice, toast and fill the Vietnamese sandwiches from fresh. We were happy to wait for ours with some snacks to share to stave the hunger pangs.

Made with mango and watermelon, my bubble tea was studded with fat chewy tapoica balls. I find something innately childish and fun about these drinks, and this didn't disappoint. Almost like a dessert, it was refreshing and thirst-quenching.

Served in a takeaway style carton, curry fishballs with chilli sauce has long been a Hong Kong street food favourite of mine. At £1.45 a skewer, these were textbook bouncy and chilli-spiked with the merest hint of curry. Summer rolls were crisp and packed with herbs, prawns and noodles served with a standard hoi sin dipping sauce.

A mammoth portion of grilled pork with noodles was priced at an absurdly good value of £3.45. Drenched with an accompanying pot of fish sauce, I felt it could have done with a little more chilli. Nevertheless, I felt smug in the apparent healthiness of all the lettuce, carrot and cucumber I was shovelling down messily. The pork was well marinaded and was satisfyingly juicy.

Half the menu is dominated with bánh mì, the Vietnamese baguette that seems to be taking London by storm. Banhmi11, a stall at Broadway Market is always busy and the short-lived Viet Baguette in Charlotte Street apparently closed to find bigger premises to cope with the demand. Van's aunt previously owned the bánh mì stall at Greenwich Market, which explained his dedication to the cause of finding good bread. Made with rice flour, bánh mì baguette should be crispy and airy, lighter than their French originals.

We tried a traditional baguette made with 'rolled pork & Viet ham'; smeared with pate, a dab of mayo and stuffed with slices of slightly gelatinous ham (this is a good thing), pickled carrot and radish, coriander and lightly scattered with scarlet-red chillis. From the first bite it was clear Van's efforts in sourcing decent bread were not in vain. Crispy but not enough to scrape the roof of your mouth to buggery, it gave way to soft pate and the crunch of the vegetables. The grilled chicken and pork variant was just as successful, though I preferred the livery hint the traditional had. They were polished off with ease.

I was pretty full by this point, but I wasn't about to leave without trying the 'Tofu-Fa', which I haven't seen much of in London. When I was a kid we had a favourite cafe we'd often go to in Hong Kong; right in the middle of a smelly market, they did the best potsticker dumplings which we almost always inevitably followed with this dessert. Served chilled (warm in winter), the wibbly wobbly tofu has the texture of just-set jelly and is sweetened with syrup. Mildly flavoured with soy, it's a cooling and light dessert and to me, is ultimately comforting and reminds me of childhood. I would come back for this alone.

So, another decent local addition. While it's not a place for a long lingering evening, it's perfect to grab a lunch or dinner on the cheap; none of the dishes or sandwiches are over £4.

Oh, and did I mention they make milkshakes with ice cream and a chocolate bar of your choice? I was, sadly, too full but I am already plotting when to get me a Ferrero Rocher milkshake.

Panda Panda

8 Deptford Broadway
London SE8 4PA

Tel: 020 8616 6922

Tuesday 6 April 2010

The Ship, Wandsworth

The Ship is one of those pubs that cater to most tastes. A huge outdoor area with a smoking barbeque ensures lazy summer days by the river can be well accomodated and they even have draught Pimms and lemonade. Inside, the bustling bar area is flooded with natural light housing many tables, all around a huge enclosed burning furnace. Out the back, a more sedate restaurant, where we had our lunch.

We kicked off with a little amuse of foie, rolled in some sort of crushed nut. It was velvet-smooth, and the little disc of apple was intensely flavoured and tooth-sticking.

My starter of smoked duck breast, tempura of confit thigh (hiding behind that massive beetroot triangle), spiced aubergine caviar and cherry jelly was visually stunning. The beetroot crisp was cut into a fearsome shard and the tempura duck leg was beautifully battered and grease-free. Aubergine caviar looked innocent enough but it packed a pleasant punch that I wasn't expecting. However, I thought the cherry jelly to be superfluous, perhaps an element too far as it didn't add much to the dish.

All this, however, was blown straight out of the water by a companion's artichoke ravioli; silky al dente pasta, adorned with seared scallops in a mussel broth, we all looked upon his plate enviously. He was forced to share it with us.

The 'surf and turf' consisted of braised pigs cheek and tiger prawns accompanied by carrot and ginger puree. While the puree was a mere colour splash, the pigs cheek was fork-tender and interspersed with wibbly swathes of fat. Pork and shellfish is a classic combination, one that worked well here with the big juicy prawns. When I came towards the end of my dish though, the pigs cheek has a slightly unpleasant granular texture beneath it - a bit like haggis, and almost too intensely porky - and it was pushed aside. A slight blip on an otherwise delicious main.

Sides of fries were well fried and wedges were declared by the table to be excellent. We also tried a dish from their barbeque menu, pork ribs in a coca cola sauce. These fell apart to hungry hands and were stickily good. I'm going for them next time.

Too stuffed to contemplate dessert for there was much moreish, home-made focaccia, we headed out to the sun-speckled garden for a few more glasses of wine with our excellent host, manager Oisin. Before really realising, we'd spent a good four hours there and had vowed to come back in summer months. You'll find us there propping up the bar, smelling faintly of smoky meat, more likely than not faces smeared with a little barbeque sauce.

The Ship

41 Jew's Row,
London SW181TB

Tel: 020 8870 9667

The Ship on Urbanspoon

We dined as guests of The Ship.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Steamed Pork with Preserved Vegetable

One of my favourite, most comforting and homely dishes when I was a kid was a steamed pork dish my grandmother would often make. Strangely I never got round to making it until now but now that I have, I know it'll be a regular dish.

The minced pork is marinaded briefly and is studded through with salty shards of preserved cabbage to season the dish. Lily buds provide an interesting texture contrast, and a hint of herb about it. After steaming, you are left with an amazingly porky juices to spoon over some plain steamed rice. It's much like a meatloaf and any leftover works well sliced up and crumbled in brothy soups or chopped into fried rice. Both the Tianjin preserved vegetable and the dried lily buds were bought from my local Chinese supermarket.

Steamed Pork with Preserved Vegetable

Serves 4 as a multi-dish meal

500gr minced pork
2 tbsp Tianjin preserved vegetable
A handful of dried lily buds
2 cloves garlic
1" ginger
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 spring onion
1/2 tbsp cornflour
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 tsp sesame oil

Firstly, soften the lily buds and shiitake mushrooms in some hot water. Rinse the preserved vegetable to get rid of some of the salt and chop. Add to a large bowl with the pork mince. Finely mince the garlic and ginger and add to the bowl along with the lily buds, rice wine, soy sauce, pepper and the spring onion, also chopped finely. Slice the softened mushrooms and throw that in too along with the sesame oil. Combine well (I used my hands), giving it a good squidge and then add the cornflour, also combining well. Leave to marinate for half an hour.

Put a pot of water on and pack the meat into a bowl. Place in your steamer and steam for 40 - 45 minutes until cooked all the way through. Serve with a vegetable dish, spooning the juices over some plain rice.